The Solutions to Democracy’s Problems Lie in Books – BloombergQuint
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(Bloomberg Opinion) — It’s Banned Books Week, when left and right blame each other for our tragic taste for censorship. A better use of the occasion would be to recognize the centrality of books to democracy, and to consider what Americans risk by our accelerating habit of not reading them.
How are books important to democracy?
First, because of what they symbolize. Consider not digital text but physical books. Through their tangibility and permanence, physical books signal that ideas are important. They are fixed in a medium that cannot be altered, the words stamped into the page until the passage of time flakes the pages to dust, thereby suggesting the existence of ideas that should be pondered not for an instant but over time.
A book is thus not a mere transmitter of information to be applied to a given task; it is, in the coinage of the great bibliophile Nicholas A. Basbanes, “a splendor of letters.” Physical, printed volumes, by solidity and heft, remind us that the appreciation of fine writing and great ideas takes time.
Second, a thriving democracy also rests on what we read — and, in particular, on the willingness to invest time in reading great literature. Although lists are necessarily imperfect, the great works have in common a felicity of language. The great book — to borrow from George Steiner — uses words with such clarity and power that it “gathers into itself a sum of life.”
Why does this matter to democracy? Because, as social scientists have long argued, reading serious literature can increase empathy, a finding that seems particularly true when it comes to difficult texts. Although this research has its critics, its conclusions accord with intuition, for a simple reason: Complex literature helps teach us that people are complex. The more we believe in the complexity of people, the more we’re able to see even political opponents as engaged alongside us in the common work of democratic governance.
Consider, for example, how we might respond to Jay Gatsby if we encountered him through a blog post setting forth his sins. Surely we would never develop the empathetic understanding stirred by Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of ambition and disaster. Similarly, were Sethe a stranger whose horrific crime we heard about on cable news, we might never be moved to ponder the hard truths about love and desperation that Toni Morrison’s brilliant prose forces us to take seriously.
Great literature calls us to pause and reflect. But the world we inhabit is loud and swift, full of alarums and excursions. Thus we face the question well put by the essayist David Ulin: “How do things stick to us in a culture where information and ideas are up so quickly that we have no time to assess one before another takes its place?”
The quick and clangy is invariably the simple. To move fast is to be unreflective. In such wilds, true literature cannot survive.
This is the true point of Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451,” a staple of high school reading lists. For years, Bradbury lamented that readers and interpreters misunderstood the tale. His worry wasn’t about state censorship. It was about the fate of the book in a society where people no longer read difficult texts because they rejected the idea of complexity. They wanted simplicity, life unmarred by the challenge of disagreeable ideas. “What traitors books can be!” proclaims Captain Beatty, the tale’s anti-villain, warning that those who read difficult texts run a terrible risk: They might change their minds.
Complexity is what serious, difficult texts teach us. Life is complex, people are complex, ideas are complex: The more we believe these truths, the more democratic we’ll be. If we stop reading serious books — books that challenge, that slow us down, that force us to think — our sense of commonality across our differences is bound to suffer.
But even if I’m right about literature, are physical books really so important? Can’t digital texts convey the same complexity?
Although the jury is still out, evidence suggests that reading on the screen isn’t the same as reading on the page. Studies consistently show that readers of physical books comprehend them better than those who read the same texts digitally. These results hold even among students who prefer reading digitally rather than physically. The frequent prediction that differences would fade as a generation people grew up reading digitally has so far not been borne out by the experimental evidence.
I’m not against e-readers — I use my Kindle a lot — and researchers believe that many of these challenges will turn out to have technological fixes. But even if all the measurable deficiencies of digital reading can be eliminated, our democratic difficulty will remain great if we continue to avoid difficult and challenging literature. What matters is not just how well we read but what we choose to read.
So to celebrate the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, let’s pledge to read books that challenge us, and read them more often. That’s the best way to prove how much we love democracy.
Even young children (ages 4 to 8) are often able explain and to some extent share the emotions of characters in stories.
The category of literature is not limited to fiction or poetry. At least four writers have won the Nobel Prize in Literature for their nonfiction work, among them Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell.
Nice bit of real-world irony: If you Google “what traitors books can be” you wind up with a list heavily weighted toward the sort of sites that do your homework for you.
The choice of medium — digital versus physical — appears to make little or no difference in text comprehension by children with autism spectrum condition.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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